We begin the spectacular opening of the 2016 college football season with a pair of national championship winning coaches, and a clarion call for donations of football equipment.
In July, friends, and West Virginia natives, coaches Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher extended an “invitation” to the high school coaches of Alabama and Florida, requesting that they donate one full uniform, including the equipment, and practice jerseys to the talent-rich schools of the Mountaineer State which were severely impacted by a devastating flood in the Greenbrier County. The natural disaster took the lives of 23 people.
The iconic coaches want to ensure that the affected schools will be able to field football teams this fall.
“As football coaches, we can do a small part to help the community heal by assisting the high school coaches,” said Fisher who grew up in the city of Clarksburg (pop. 16,000) and coached as an assistant under Saban at LSU. “We have all seen how athletics can help, heal, and rebuild communities that have suffered through a tragedy.”
Saban, who is from the city of Fairmont (18,815) said, “Football was such an important part of my childhood in West Virginia, and to see the devastation the flooding has caused, and how it has threatened so many high school football teams, we wanted to find a way to help.”
In that spirit of camaraderie let’s see which teams, overcome by a flood of emotion, celebrate its victory by belting out the lyrics of John Denver’s “Country Road,” and which seemed to be swimming against the “tide” up a creek without a helmet.
No.1 Alabama vs No.20 USC – (Ch. 5, 8 p.m. Cowboy Classic, Jerry’s World, Texas) – As always, kudos to both schools who have a storied history of opening its season, not by gorging on a cupcake, but by fine dining on an entrée of the five-star caliber. And the last time these traditional powers faced off Ronald Reagan was napping (1985) in the Oval Office.
[And in an added note: Bama’s o-coordinator Lane Kiffin will be coaching, (not to mention salivating) for a spot of revenge against the team that fired him (after USC’s 62-41 obliteration at the hands of Arizona State) as he was getting off the bus a mere five games into the 2013 season.]
We’ll begin with the Tide.
Groucho’s favorite team; [“When elephant hunting in Africa we tried to remove the tusks, but they were embedded so firmly we couldn’t budge them. Of course in Alabama the Tuscaloosa,” Captain Spaulding from “Animal Crackers,”] is shooting for consecutive national championships.
During his nine year chart-topping residency in Tuscaloosa, St. Nick, aka Nick Saban, the Michelangelo of those “Title Town” masterpieces, has painted his way to 4-national titles in seven-years, (he earned another at LSU) while compiling a jaw-dropping “Bear-esque” resume of near perfection: 105-18 record and the .853 winning percentage. He also owns the most wins against AP number one teams – six, with the next closest at four.
Those Richter busting numbers have earned him the privilege of having his name chiseled alongside the Tide’s other “god of the pigskin”; Paul “Bear” Bryant, whose once seemingly unassailable gold-standard of six-championships is now as secure as a sand dune on the Cape Cod National Seashore during a raging winter Nor’easter.
And despite the heavy graduation losses, many to the NFL, Bama’s cupboard is stocked with more talent than Southie’s M-Street beach on a hot mid-July Saturday afternoon.
We’ll start on the defensive side, which many of the SEC’s coaching brethren feel is the best in the conference.
This ornery eleven anchored by an All-America duo; end Jonathan Allen, and backer Reuben Foster, along with hefty assists from safety Eddie Jackson and tackle Da’Ron Payne moves faster than the IndyCar guys bailing on the Boston Grand Prix, and hits harder than a Trump supporter at an anti-Donald protester.
But once again the biggest question in Tuscaloosa revolves around the quarterback.
Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett who will share opening night duties and Saban hopes one will emerge as the team’s leader.
The QB of the “Sons of Joe Namath” has the luxury of focusing on arguably the best receiving corps in America featuring All-America Calvin Ridley, and his partners ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster, mixed with a strong dose of another All-America, tight end O.J. Howard.
And for the first time in many years, Bryant-Denny Stadium won’t feature its usual earth-plowing “bell-cow.” Instead the partnership of Bo Scarbrough and Damian Harris will be called upon to carry the day.
In LA, it’s another “new era,” for the Men of Troy, as it continues to search, with apologies to Paul Simon – “Where have you gone Pete Carroll, a Trojan nation turns its lonely eyes to you …” for its next championship caliber coach.
If you recall, Carroll was USC’s third choice, so when Coach Clay Helton finished out 2015 with a 6-4 record, the interim was stripped off his door and the new man will be given every opportunity to resurrect the underachieving Trojans.
[Note: the disastrous reign of athletic director and former USC “golden boy” Pat Haden also mercifully ended courtesy of his resignation. He was replaced by another Trojan legend; college and NFL HOF member Lynn Swann, who in 2006 lost a race for the governorship of Pennsylvania.]
Max Browne will start under center, and like Alabama he must show his coaches that he indeed has the ability to “hang ten” and ride the curl to the finish.
And as always “Tailback U” attacks with a pair of slithery slashers; Justin Davis and Ronald Jones, while wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the nation’s finest, is the Trojan’s All-America touchdown maker.
Helton has made it his stated mission to meld his charges into a more physical force, something that has been absent from the Coliseum floor in recent years. But that mandate may prove to be a difficult challenge as its d-line led by tackles Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson, and end Porter Gustin is stuffed with inexperienced newbies.
In order to spring the upset, USC will need to muster and ride a monster wave to swamp the Tide. But as “Blondie” once sang; “The tide is high, but I’m holding on, I want to be your number one.” And the Boys from L.A. will find out that there is truly only one; Number 1. Roll Tide!!
No. 11 Mississippi vs No. 4 Florida State (Sept. 5, Labor Day, ESPN 8 p.m. Orlando) – Despite a growing litany of off serious off-field issues (potential probation), the Rebels, to steal a line from Tom Petty; “Are on the yell.”
The “Sons of Archie Manning” [note: the speed limit on the stately Oxford campus is 18 mph in honor of Archie’s number] are hoping to write another great chapter of Ole Miss football, in the vein of its most renown alum, and native son, two time Pulitzer Prize winning novelist William Faulkner.
QB Chad Kelly the most talented signal caller in the SEC is the unquestioned leader of the Boys from the Grove but his skills will be tested by a totally new offensive line.
The swashbuckling gunslinger who inherits his pedigree from his uncle Jim, the former HOF quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, conjures up images of an Archie-redux, which has shown to be a lethal package. [Ole Miss has knocked off Alabama in consecutive seasons, one of only 3-teams to have done that to Saban. LSU, and then Florida when he was the headman at LSU.]
If he has the protection, the Rebel dart-thrower is afforded the luxury of choosing from a passel of quality receivers led by Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo, and spiced by a strong dash of tight end Evan Engram.
There is also great anticipation amongst the coaches that tailback Akeem Judd will emerge as a dangerous change-up to the Ole Miss “bombs-away” mentality.
The strength of the D is its attacking line led by sack-master end Marquis Haynes, his partner Fadol Brown, and tackle Breeland Speaks.
In Tallahassee, the “Sons of Freddy B” (Fred Biletnikoff) will employ a defense that is more disruptive than Hillary Clinton screaming in the face of a Secret Service agent.
This group anchored by the All-America pairing; end DeMarcus Walker, safety Derwin James, and assisted by end Josh Sweat and tackle Derrick Nnadi, inhales QB’s faster than Roger Ailes used to harass female FOX employees, and is harder to penetrate than Bill Clinton’s little black book, or Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The offensive igniter is its explosive All-America, and Heisman contending tailback Dalvin Cook, whose breakaway ability makes r-shirt freshman QB Deondre Francois (senior Sean Maguire broken bone in foot) and a trio of talented wideouts; Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, and untested recruit phenom Auden Tate, all the more dangerous.
Coach Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles have made it their quest not only to “tomahawk” its way back to the ACC title, but to garner an invite into the four-team playoff. In a game that is dripping with playoff elimination implications, we think the Rebel yell is silenced by the DeSalvo-like D of FSU.
No.15 Houston vs No. 3 Oklahoma – (Noon, Ch. 5 Houston) As far as Cougar Coach Tom Herman (an Urban Meyer protégée, and now a $3 million man, courtesy of his boffo 13-1 season as a first-time headman, which included a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State) is concerned; there will be no ominous “Houston, we have a problem!” pronouncement as long as his starry dual-threat QB Greg Ward can remain upright.
But Herman’s frenetic Cougs, who can score faster than another sponsor tossing Ryan Lochte overboard, could be hamstrung early, as only a single starter returns on the offensive line.
The starry marksman of the Sons of Tom Landry (Class ’52, Masters in Industrial Engineering) who glides with the elegance of Gene Kelly is assisted by a trio of game-breaking targets; Chance Allen, Steve Dunbar, and Ra’shad Samples, while tailback Duke Catalon is the principle road runner.
But Houston’s pedestrian D, featuring backers Tyrus Bowser, Matthew Adams, and tackle B.J. Singleton, won’t induce any sleepless nights for opposition’s offensive coordinators.
In Norman, the faithful of the “Sons of Bud Wilkerson” are hoping that this is the season that the Sooners, (who haven’t captured a national championship since 2000 despite Bob “Big Game” Stoops jaw-dropping; 179-46 record and .796 winning percentage) produce a smash hit of the magnitude of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.” Or for a dramatic “Great White Way” flourish (hope that isn’t offensive!) “Ooooooklahooomaa, where the wind comes whipping down the plain…..”
OU’s Tony Award nominee is its All-America, and Heisman contending dual-threat QB, Baker Mayfield, who is tougher than a $5 steak, and hits a target better than an US drone. But after suffering two concussions in his last 3 games, must show more jurisprudence in hitting the deck if the Sooners are going to reach its projected Himalayan heights.
In addition the sharp shooter’s prime receivers; Dede Westbrook, and Michiah Quick must quickly demonstrate that they are worthy replacements for starry graduation losses.
There are no such concerns regarding “Storming Norman’s” running attack as its duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon gallop with the intensity of a pair of stretch-driving Churchill Downs thoroughbreds.
On the other side of the ball, the inexperienced D needs to quickly plug some holes, and will depend heavily on All-America tackle Charles Walker, backer Jordan Evans, and safety Steven Parker to hold serve, a difficult assignment against Houston’s dynamic playmaking QB.
In a game that could be tighter than Philippe Petit’s high wire, and another stuffed with playoff implications, (Houston has to win for any playoff consideration), we think the pedigree of Oklahoma will be enough to carry the Sons of Tommy Macdonald across the finish line.
No. 5 LSU vs Wisconsin (Ch.5, 3:30 p.m. Lambeau Field) – Last season in “Tiger Land” it was considered a forgone conclusion that the employment of its coach Les “Mad-Hatter” (112-32, 11-years, 1 national title) Miles was going the way of England and the EU.
But after surveying the coaching landscape (FSU’s Jimbo Fisher said no) the administration came to its collective $$$ senses realizing that it already employed the best man to prowl the Baton Rouge sideline.
[Note: After the biblical flooding in Baton Rouge, which experts are calling a once in-a-500-year event, there is no better ambassador to reach out to the community than Les Miles. It might be a rallying cry similar to the ’13 Red Sox in determining LSU’s destiny.]
These “Sons of Billy Cannon” are driven by its locomotive All-America, and Heisman “beast-mode” tailback, Leonard Fournette, who along with Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams will have the luxury of attacking behind a seasoned offensive line. Fournette’s early camp ankle issue appears to be resolved.
And just like the budget deficit in America, the uncertainty at quarterback remains a constant drain on the championship aspirations of the Purple and Gold.
“Mr. Inconsistent” Brandon Harris will open under center, but Purdue transfer Danny Etling will push for extended playing time. Luckily the starting QB has the luxury of targeting a pair of future Sunday performers: Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural.
The Tigers ferocious D with its newly installed 3-4 scheme returns eight starters (note: end Christian LaCouture is lost for the season) led by end Lewis Neal, backer Kendell Beckwith, and All-America safety Jamal Adams all of whom hit with the concussive force of a Joe Frazier left-hook.
But Miles best “signing” was that of former Wisconsin d-coordinator Dave Aranda, whose squads have proven to be tougher to penetrate than the summer home of Vladimir Putin.
Wisconsin is thrilled to be playing for the first time on the hallowed ground of Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi or as that “man of the people” former Massachusetts Senator, and current Secretary of State John Kerry referred to it during his ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign; “Lambert Field.”
And like a wheel of Wisconsin cheese, the ubiquitous identity of any Mad-Town (Madison) team is its ground and pound running attack. This year’s version is anchored by its starry road-grader Corey Clement, who is completely healthy from last season’s limiting sport’s hernia.
Coach Paul Chryst’s Badgers are directed by fifth-year senior QB Bart Houston, who takes his name from another Packer legend Bart Starr, while wideouts Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy are the principle targets.
The D of the Sons of J.J. Watt is a rather pedestrian bunch, anchored by a trio of backers: Chris Orr, T.J. Edwards, and Vince Biegel.
A team from the Pelican State ventures north of the Mason-Dixon Line about as often as Bernie Sanders smiles standing next to Hillary Clinton. And fair warning; the Camp Randall faithful which has its own spectacular “5Th Quarter” marching band, had better be prepared to listen to a heavy dose of “Tiger Rag” from the “Golden Band from Tiger Land” as LSU thoroughly enjoys its visit to “Lambert Field!”
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn (ESPN 9 p.m.) Clemson scores faster and more often than Taylor Swift, or the UConn women’s basketball team.
The Sons of John Heisman (1900-03, record:19-3-2) are directed by its all-America and Heisman contending Svengali QB Deshaun Watson, who moves with the grace of Baryshnikov but with better escapability than Harry Houdini.
The rest of the Dabo’s (Coach Dabo Swinney) video game offense features the dynamic tailback tandem: Wayne Gallman, and Adam Choice, while a quartet of field-stretching receivers led by All-America tight end Jordan Leggett, and Artavis Scott severely stresses any defense.
The D anchored by All-America tackle Carlos Watkins, backer Ben Boulware, and end Austin Bryant lacks experience, but quickly compensates with an abundance of five star talent coached up by the estimable d-coordinator Brent Venables.
In Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn continues on his seemingly Ahab-like quest for the right triggerman to run his zone-read option offense.
QB Sean White will get the starting call, but the Tigers trio of “Big-Dig” earth movers has been reduced by one (Javon Robinson was dismissed from the team), and its principle high Plains drifter will be Kerryon Johnson.
When the “Sons of Bo Jackson” go aerial, Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens are the primary targets.
Auburn’s snarly D led by end Carl Lewis, and tackles Montravius Adams, and Dontavius Russell plays with the same animosity that Ted Cruz holds toward Donald Trump, and will keep the “Boys from the Plains” in in every game.
In Jordan-Hare the faithful are being urged to wear orange. But it will take much more than a costume accessory of Halloween proportions to knock off Clemson’s “Le Grande orange” as the pre-season Heisman favorite dazzles the Auburn’s hometown heroes.
That’s it from cyber space. We’ll be up and running with our recap on Sunday by noon. Until then, Peace, and listen to the music. PK